When you’ve been supporting Sunderland for 50 years, the problem with writing about your first game, your favourite goal or your favourite ground is that you have to have a good memory. Unfortunately, my memory has never been my strongest point and as I get older, it isn’t getting any better! So my story will be a bit vague on specific dates and games but I hope it will still be of interest. No doubt, many of you with better memories or a better set of Sunderland statistics will be able to flesh out the match details for yourselves. Anyway, here I go.
I am always quite envious when I read stories of other people’s first game. Especially when it is told in “ball by ball” detail and concludes with them proclaiming that it was the day they became a lifelong fan. You see, for me, the memories of my first game are much vaguer and the day didn’t immediately result in that lifelong attachment. But a significance emerged later on that I would suggest is even more profound. It became the catalyst for a boy born and bred in Cullercoats, in “enemy territory” so to speak, to become a Sunderland fan.
By way of background, my parents were Scottish and they moved to the North East because of my father’s job. I was brought up in what was basically a Scottish household where rugby was the game of choice not football. I had no real understanding of the age-old Tyne/Wear rivalry. I had no sense of its history, its intensity or how it had ingrained itself into the two football teams. But I would soon find out.
So, sometime in the late 1960s our neighbours were taking their son to a Sunderland game. They weren’t big football fans and they weren’t originally from the North East either. I think they just fancied going because it was against a high-profile team (Spurs). I was invited to go along with them. I’m guessing it was 1967.
So, what do I remember of the game? Well actually, not much. I remember we stood in the Main Stand Paddock, towards the Fulwell End. I remember we lost 1-0 (a sign of things to come?) and I remember their keeper (Pat Jennings?) made some great saves. What I remember most, however, was how I struggled to see the game. I was only 8 or 9 and my eyes were barely at pitch level, despite the terracing. So my abiding memory is actually of being envious of other boys whose fathers had adapted swing seats so that the ropes could fit over the railings at the front of the paddock, allowing their sons to stand on the seat and be much higher up. Somewhat uncharitably I also remember laughing when one boy had to dodge the ball as it flew into the crowd and he fell off his perch!
So not a very auspicious start - and it might all have ended there if not for a conversation with my classmates in the changing rooms after PE, sometime later. You see, we were all getting involved in football and the conversation was about what team we were going to support. As 9 or 10 year olds we didn’t have a lot to go on so as you can imagine, most of them chose Newcastle. There were a few exceptions though. I remember Donald Robinson chose Man Utd because they had just won the European Cup and my best friend Chris chose Arsenal – for reasons I can no longer recall. I was pretty sure that none of them had actually been to a game and so I found myself blurting out “Well, I’m going to support Sunderland because I’ve seen them play.”
I was expecting a reaction, but I thought it would be along the lines of “What, you’ve actually been to a game?” but that’s not how it turned out. I remember quite vividly the looks of astonishment, anger, disbelief and ridicule. “What, Sunderland? How could you support them?” But I have always been a man (and boy) of principle and have always believed that once you pick a team, you stick with them forever. So, the die was cast.
So began a life of supporting Sunderland, a life of ups and downs, euphoria and pain, joy and despair, hope and heartbreak. At first it was via occasional trips to Roker Park with my father and then as I grew older, on the Priory Coaches bus from Whitley Bay and in my first car. Then, after I had left the North East as an 18 year old, never to return on a permanent basis, it was mainly trips to away grounds in the North West and Midlands, interspersed with the occasional trip to Roker Park and then the Stadium of Light.
Many of them were with my late great friend Ian Stedham. I was at Roker Park when we got promoted by beating West Ham after they’d won the cup in 1980 and I was there when we beat Chelsea in an FA Cup replay in 1992. I had also been at the original tie at Samford Bridge when John Byrne scored a late equaliser and I was at Hillsborough when we beat Norwich in the semi-final. I was at the old Baseball Ground in Derby when we lost 6-0 in the league but were still singing more than the home fans. I was at Wembley in 1992 when we lost the final and I was at Notts County on the last day of the season when we lost but stayed up because someone else also lost. Highs and lows indeed, but I have never wavered.
So, do I regret making that declaration 50 years ago? Not one bit! You see, in my opinion, following your home town team is the easy option. I’m not saying that supporting Sunderland is easy but at least when you lose, most of the people around you have lost too. And following an out of town team that wins nearly all the time is certainly easy. Oh, how I would love to experience the heartache of losing a Champions League final! Following Sunderland from behind enemy lines on the other hand, was a massive challenge, including regular ridicule, derision and threats of violence. The thing about big challenges however, is that the successes are then sweeter and the failures more bitter. Everything is more acute. That has certainly been the case for me and so I wouldn’t change a thing.
In recent years my regular involvement with Sunderland has meant getting up in the dead of night to watch them on pay TV in Australia and since their relegation from the Premier League, the minimal coverage of lower leagues in Australia has limited me to occasional highlights, YouTube clips and website match reports. My wife says it’s not a bad thing that I see Sunderland less because my heart is going the same way as my memory! But I am a stubborn old git and there is still no other team for me.
The team is still part of my life nearly every day. As a result of that first trip to Roker Park, I truly am “Sunderland ‘Till I Die”!